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Does modern education endanger the soul?


Merrimack College

Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 08/24/16

Be vigilant, parents and kids going off to college -- your very salvation is at risk
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Who said this? And when?

The trouble with modern education is you never know how ignorant people are. With anyone over fifty you can be fairly confident what’s been taught and what’s been left out. But these young people today have such an intelligent, knowledgeable surface, and then the crust suddenly breaks and you look down into the depths of confusion you didn’t know existed.

So spoke Father Mowbray, in Evelyn Waugh’sBrideshead Revisited.” I proudly note such an insightful statement made by a Jesuit—even a fictional one. And as a non-fictional Jesuit who has taught for over 20 years, I am inclined to agree with Mowbray, and not only because I am “over fifty.” But there is a problem. The novel was published in 1945—well before my time. So, will there always and forever be educators complaining about education? Or is our time an especially poor time for education?

Disputes about the education of youth have been recorded since at least the time of Socrates. Some of the most articulate critics of educational routine, even in the 20th century, were writing before I was born. Consider this from Dorothy Sayers “The Lost Tools of Learning” from 1947, decades before political correctness, relativism, self-esteem, trigger warnings, micro-aggressions, etc.:

Scorn in plenty has been poured out upon the mediaeval passion for hair-splitting; but when we look at the shameless abuse made, in print and on the platform, of controversial expressions with shifting and ambiguous connotations, we may feel it in our hearts to wish that every reader and hearer had been so defensively armored by his education as to be able to cry: “Distinguo.” [“I make a distinction.”] For we let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armor was never so necessary. By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects.

It’s probably useless to argue about which time was worse than any other time or precisely when things got as bad as they are now. But there are certainties:

  1. No one can seriously maintain that American public education is enjoying broad and deep success at any level;
  2. In living memory, in America we taught Latin and Greek to high school students, and now we teach “Remedial English” to college students;
  3. Very many self-identified Catholic schools offer an education in manner and content that would not be recognized as Catholic or humane by their founders.

The human soul has always been in peril. Authentic Catholic education teaches accordingly. As a student and as a professor of many years, even amidst luminous teachers and students, I have seen a downward trajectory. That downward turn is being accelerated by our addiction to social media and frenetic consumption. This week, as parents send their kids to college, wondering when they will return home, I urge them to ask, “Will my child return to me with his soul intact?”

Have I painted a dark picture? Yes. Yet I’ve had hope renewed by Jesuit Father James Schall’s latest book, “Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught.” Consider:

“Facing the truth of things is both our glory and our burden…And why…is it so difficult to know the truth? In part…because our lives are not in order so that we cannot bear the truth because we know that it requires us to change our lives…The very nature of our being is unsettled until we stand in truth…Saint Augustine said that… ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee…’ No university or other kind of education that does not know this metaphysical restlessness about ourselves will ever be anything but boring.”

Our salvation and the salvation of our children and students depend, as always, upon our ability to conform our intellect and will to what is true, good and beautiful. Faithful Catholic education provides what the human person needs in this life to reach what he was made for—the happiness of Heaven. Now, as always, the soul’s enemies would teach something else. As learners, teachers and parents, we must secure the souls of those in our care. Here are a few books that can help: “Docilitas”; “Another Sort of Learning”; “The Intellectual Life”; “Beauty in the Word.” Souls are always being contested for—here and now, let’s be vigilant.

When I write next, I will reflect on John the Baptist. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

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